Absolutely - at least as a writer, boondoggling can be described as 'creative thinking'. Some of the most vivid parts of a story come to you when your mind's in neutral and playing - dreams, half wakefulness, when you're in the shower or walking the dog. Daydreaming is vital.
Yes, always. Like a lot of writers I wrote diaries and stories and plays as a child. It's been a lifelong dream.
I grew up in a very wild and beautiful part of the south west of England, between Exmoor and Dartmoor. It's a beautiful part of the world, full of myth and magic - hidden valleys, stone circles, secret coves and beaches, austere moors, winters full of snow and summers that seem to last forever. We lived in an isolated village, and as children had the run of Stoodleigh Court's grounds. There was a lot of freedom and it was a great place to be a child - I'm sure it fostered my imagination. Where I live now couldn't be more different - in a gated secure compound in the only true desert country in the world, in the Middle East. It's not forever, but missing the countryside, and freedom, and culture is a constant ache. But you make the best of it - there are few distractions! Here, life revolves around writing and the family, but a dream day would involve one of the world's great cities - galleries, museums, browsing second hand bookstores, then back to the countryside or coast for a great meal with friends talking late into the night.
I saw Robert Capa's photograph of the 'Falling Soldier' in a Magnum exhibition, and at that moment all the strands of the story pulled together for me. I'd been reading about Spanish history since moving to Valencia, and I knew I wanted to write about the Civil War - but didn't know how. I had all these nebulous ideas floating around - this beautiful abandoned house I loved, the aftermath of 9/11, perfume ... and in that moment it was like someone turned the focus on the lens. Photography was the key.
The last four novels have been historical fiction, so there is a very strong scaffolding to the stories - it matters that the history is factually accurate, and that any fiction is within the realms of possibility. Beyond that, I know the key 'beats' of the story, so I have a sense of the rhythm, but I don't overplan. Being surprised by your characters is too much fun to plot rigidly.
Oh yes, all the time. I specialised in Surrealism for my BA and have been interested in active dreaming for years. I'm a big believer in rolling through the scenes of your story as you fall asleep - very often in the morning any 'snags' in the storyline will have unravelled. And it's a great moment when your novel spills into your subconscious and you are dreaming about the characters. (I so agree!)
Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I love serendipity - it always feels like a small sign that you're on the right track. There were a lot of discoveries with this book, from coming across the perfect abandoned house for Emma, to introductions to historians who helped with the research. Then there was a simple email exchange with a tourism officer in Valencia. A throw away remark he made gave me the missing, final plot twist - what happens to Delilah at the end of the story really happens on a regular basis. Sometimes as a writer it feels like you're following a trail of breadcrumbs more than making anything up!
It depends what stage the story is at. Now, an average day writing is up at 5am, quickly scrawl down any notes for the day. Take the kids to school, then 7.30am - 12pm writing at my desk, usually with Milo the Siamese X sitting on the table and Oscar the pug by my feet. The desk is in the corner of the living room, so later in the day there are normally troops of children running in and out. If it's a first draft, you have to pin down the story as it comes to you, so the early files are filled with till receipts and backs of envelopes with cryptic messages scrawled in eyeliner, jotted down when I'd stopped in traffic. When the children were small in England, I had a system where I'd toss these scraps down to the basement room where I worked because there was a very real possibility a child or dog would eat the valuable clue. It worked a bit like an Oracle - in the evening when everyone was asleep, I'd run down into the darkness and flick the light on to find the notes scattered like confetti. Each one was a 'seed' from which dialogue or a scene grew.
The first draft, definitely. I love the energy of a new idea blossoming, when you're falling love with the story and the characters. When it gathers momentum, that feeling of urgency can't be beaten.
I let that scene rest, get a change of scenery - walking is very good for 'unblocking'. If you skip ahead and write a scene you're dying to write, then go back to just before the block, it's often clear which pages need to be scrapped. I think we all write ourselves into dead-ends sometimes, and that's when it's time to get ruthless and cut back the dead wood to where the story is still fresh and alive, then 'graft' it to the scene you're excited about.
It's not as easy as it was, living in Spain or the UK. The things that inspire - beautiful countryside, the coast, ancient architecture, creativity, freedom, authenticity, aren't to hand. So I travel a lot, stockpile books, magazines, movies like a squirrel for the lean months. I keep up to date on what's going on culturally in the places I love. I read, a lot.
Music plays a big part - each novel has a soundtrack which is a shortcut back to the story each time I listen to it. Each first draft is handwritten, so buying new stationery at the start of a new story in September recreates that 'back to school' type focus.
James Salter, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Barbara Trapido, William Boyd, Mary Wesley, Edward St Aubyn, Sarah Hall, Angela Carter, Isabel Allende. These are all writers I read again and again.
Begin today. You don't need fancy courses, or computers, or acres of time. Dust off an old notebook and a pen that feels good when you write with it, and carve out a few minutes a day. Write a little every day about something that matters to you, and read books that excite you and move you every day.
I'm juggling a few books at different stages - THE PERFUME GARDEN for the US, two new novels are being edited, and I'm finishing up the research for the story I'll start in September. Editing is necessary - 'writing is rewriting', but the siren call of the new story is strong ...